Rodwell rises to the challenge

Everton 3 Aston Villa 1
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The Independent Football

Should anyone have reached the conclusion that Aston Villa have usurped Everton as chief pretenders to the Premier League's superpower group, here was a reminder that the battle for that place in the pecking order is not yet settled. Villa, who won at Goodison in December and had not lost an away match in England since early November, put out as strong a side as they could muster in the hope of reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup but found Everton, driven by youthful inspiration, too good.

Ahead after four minutes, when the 17-year-old Jack Rodwell launched a performance of calm maturity with his first senior goal, Everton recovered from conceding a penalty to four minutes later regaining the lead via a penalty of their own before half-time, then successfully repelling all Villa's efforts to draw level a second time before Tim Cahill ensuring their progress with their third goal, 14 minutes from the end.

Given that Leon Osman joined Marouane Fellaini and Louis Saha among Everton's injured, with Steven Pienaar suspended and Jo ineligible, it was a remarkable effort. Villa, with their Champions League ambitions, may yet enjoy the benefits of a weekend off next month but there was no lack of ambition.

"OK, I might in time see it as a blessing, in the broader scheme of things," the Villa manager, Martin O'Neill, admitted. "I don't know when that might be but I can tell you that if you had offered me a 2-2 draw and a replay with 15 minutes left I would have taken it, because it is the FA Cup."

Villa were missing Gareth Barry, suspended, as well as the injured Nigel Reo-Coker and, contentiously, Emile Heskey, whose return from England duty in Spain with an aggravated hamstring injury is a cause of continuing vexation for O'Neill. Yet the challenge facing Everton was still probably the greater. It was a tribute to the strength of spirit instilled by David Moyes that they overcame it.

Rodwell, who hammered the ball home after Stiliyan Petrov had blocked Cahill's header – with a hand – from a corner, epitomised it, as did his 19-year-old colleague, Dan Gosling, who was the hero of the fourth-round win over Liverpool, and – perhaps most surprisingly – Victor Anichebe, who was a key figure in the other two Everton goals.

The 20-year-old Nigerian, omitted from Moyes' last two squads after an alleged confrontation with the manager on the training ground, won the 24th-minute penalty from which the excellent Mikel Arteta restored Everton's lead and supplied the cross, with the outside of his boot, from which Cahill scored the clincher.

Moyes, who suggested Anichebe had been "in some ways badly advised" in an oblique reference to the incident in his programme notes, gave due credit to the young striker's efforts, which were appreciated warmly by the crowd.

"He is an exciting player. He just needs to get himself fit and find some consistency," Moyes said. Villa, for whom James Milner equalised after eight minutes, his penalty kick squeezing under Tim Howard's dive, missed a golden chance to get back on level terms a second time before half-time when Gabriel Agbonlahor turned a close-range header wide of goal from Ashley Young's cross.

They were also denied by a superb Howard save on the hour when John Carew's flick, from a Milner cross, looked to be going in.

"Perhaps Howard's save was a turning point," O'Neill added. "I felt we deserved something from the game and, of course, the third goal killed us."

He disputed the suggestion that Petrov's use of a hand in the build-up to the opening goal might have brought a red card for the Bulgarian. "You can't play advantage, let the goal stand and send the man off," O'Neill said.

Moyes singled out Cahill's performance, after playing 85 minutes for Australia in Japan in midweek, as "outstanding" and revealed that Howard had played despite a leg injury sustained playing for the United States. "I think he went to bed with an ice pack but he said he would give it a go and came up with a tremendous save."

Despite the example set last year by Portsmouth, however, in breaking the big-four dominance of the FA Cup, Moyes has doubts whether his squad is resilient enough to follow their lead. "I wondered even if this would be one game too far so I'm not going to make any stupid statements," he said. "We just have to get through one match at a time."

Goals: Rodwell (4) 1-0; Milner pen (8) 1-1; Arteta pen (24) 2-1; Cahill (76) 3-1.

Everton (4-4-2): Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Lescott, Baines; Neville, Arteta (Castillo, 90), Rodwell, Gosling; Anichebe (Yobo, 88), Cahill. Substitutes not used: Nash (gk), Van der Meyde, Jacobsen, Baxter, Wallace.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Gardner, Knight, Davies, L Young; Milner, Sidwell (Delfouneso, 83), Petrov, A Young; Agbonlahor, Carew. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Harewood, Salifou, Shorey, Albrighton, Lowry.

Referee: M Atkinson (West Yorkshire)

Booked: Everton Hibbert, Cahill, Rodwell; Aston Villa Sidwell, Petrov, Milner.

Man of the match: Arteta.

Attendance: 32,979.